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Blog 3 – In praise of Collective Action


Of the 5 million Covid deaths world-wide, how many could have been saved by proper public health decisions, understood collectively and carried out together? Let us take the most glaring example, that of the most powerful country in the world, and then see what lessons it holds for us in Mauritius.

Over 750,000 Americans have died of Covid. The exact death toll, as of today, of 787,984 American Covid deaths should shock us all rigid. The most highly developed country in the world, with only 4 % of the world’s population, accounts for 15% of the world’s Covid deaths? It is an astonishing failure.

Why such a breakdown in health care?

We don’t think it is that Americans are physically weaker so succumb to Covid. On the contrary. 

What does it teach us about pandemic control? Dr. Birx former White House Covid advisor attributes it to lock-downs and social distancing mandates being late. But, why, in turn, was this the case?

We can only hazard a guess, an informed guess, as to why the epidemic has decimated the most highly developed society this way. People living under America’s dominant ruling class ideology do not, as a whole, understand the language of collective action very easily. They almost lack the “grammar” for it in their everyday speech. And it is this that is essential for combatting an epidemic. The conceptual structure for seeing the big picture during a pandemic is just plain absent in mainstream U.S. thinking. If you listen closely to Americans on, say, CNN, you will realize they see vaccination as only about “protecting myself” or at best “protecting myself and my family”. So, while some half of all people in the USA respect mask mandates and social distancing, and take up vaccination, they do it, mostly, “to protect me and mine”. But a huge section of the population in the USA refuse to do so on the grounds they don’t agree with the “authorities” telling them what to do with their own personal, individual bodies. There is not much shared understanding in American society of “collective action for the collective good” – so it is hard for those who step up for vaccination just “to protect myself” to convince the others who don’t care about anything other than their own “myself” nor do they care what you do to protect “yourself”. Those against vaccines believe anti-vax propaganda. And, if this belief falters, they fall back on the either the protection, it seems, of god, or of their personal destiny, or in the advent of some “cure” or “treatment” – from lod-zavel to latizann, from hydroxy-chloroquine to bleach – anything but not collective action. American ideology does not have a proper intellectual template for seeing vaccination as “us all stepping up for vaccination so as collectively to protect us all”. That sounds too “communistic” to the American ruling class to bear, therefore they scorn it to the point of scrapping it. In fact, there is a whole industry declaring such ways of thinking to be “bad”, “weak”, “evil”. The only thing that counts is “what is in it for me”, and the only one to decide that is “me”. It is all about “me, me, me”. The egotism so glorified by capitalism has been a dominant ideology in the USA since the early 20th Century; working class heroes who proposed collective action were often beaten up by thugs paid by the bosses, jailed and even hanged by the State during the “first red scare” of around 1917. During “the second red scare” of McCarthyism in the 1940s and 50s up to early 1960s, people were jailed, lost their jobs and their passports. Now, over the last 15 years, added to anti-communism, there is the deathly narcism nurtured by social media in the USA, and everywhere. Plus there is a dose of sadism mixed in to the original dominant ideology: it is the poorer nations and the poorer people of America who suffer and die more from Covid, so why should “we” care?

American epidemiologists, of course, understand the difference between an epidemic and other forms of illness. Listen to their language as they speak on TV. It is in the nature of their profession to understand this. But most listeners in the USA do not understand them. You can see this from the way CNN journalists brush aside the analyses that go beyond individualism.

But, the epidemiologists do see it. They see society as a whole and understand how the virus circulates amongst the totality of us. Just like air quality and the purity of the water in our taps, affects us all, so a viral infection affects us all – and not just each of us. It affects each of us and all of us. And so American epidemiologists can and do plan how Americans can behave differently so as, together, to quell the spread of the little intra-cellular parasites that cause Covid – or any similar viral infection in the future that could, of course, cause even worse illnesses. But epidemiologists do not have the ear of the American people as a whole for long enough, or even of its mass media as a whole for long enough, to shake the individualist hegemony that prevails. This then, in turn, prevents Americans from understanding a “whole of society” problem and what “collective action” it requires. 

Americans, as their ideological foundation myth, have the “American dream”, which is about inequality and individualism: each American is supposed to dream of individually rising to wealth and power and success within this unequal system. The unequal system is thus seen, in the foundation myth, as permanently and justifiably unequal. And this process that is really one of attempting to “legitimize” inequality is what “the American dream” is. In practical terms, collective thinking and collective action is consciously sabotaged, even at the grassroots, by a whole big money-making industry of “union buster” firms, who rent their services to the bosses to crush collective action on work sites at the thinking stage. Three-quarters of all companies in the USA have had recourse to these kinds of services, according to a Cornell University survey. Only 10% of American workers are unionized in this most highly developed nation. The comedian John Oliver last week on his show exposed how the bosses of the world’s biggest economy manage this feat of repressing trade unions. It is a witty lesson on the truth about the human right to unionize in the USA:

And this is brings us to praise those Americans who do persist in keeping alive a really collective dream of changing society, and who are able, despite the propaganda dominating their society, to see, during an epidemic, how vaccination and other collective action for the good of us all can be organized (action taken individually, of course, because there is a relationship between the individual and the collective). And these perceptive and brave people have persisted struggling to unionize their workplace, for example, and to encourage people to step up for vaccination.

Without them, the death figures in the USA would be much, much worse. 

All this to say, we need to keep to our own resolution, all of us in Mauritius who know how to think collectively, for a voluntary “stay-in” during this part of the Covid emergency. For each person, the action is individual. For society, any proportion of us who do this, contribute to lowering the rate of spread. The Government cannot or will not do this kind of “stay-in” for us at the moment. We call on the Authorities to plan a stricter lock down. But meanwhile, we ourselves can decide. We can decide, all of us, to just go out to work and back. That is it. Walk part of the way, if possible, to lower the crowds on transport. Already, our members are doing this. Students, those working from home, retired people, can have an even stricter “stay in”. And we can be out in the open at times when others are outdoors less. We can go out for supplies only on our “alphabet days”. Let’s do it! The lesson is that in the USA, just as the 3/4 of a million deaths could have been less had the authorities acted in time, death figures could also have been much higher, had there not been this kind of voluntary “stay in” by a good proportion of Americans, who understand. 

And remember each “death figure” is an individual person lost forever. Lost to those close to them. Lost to all of us. Forever. So, in order to care for the individual life, we need collective action.

Meanwhile, the hospitals in Mauritius are under stress. In order to spare hospital workers from this strain, and from the dangers to them, individually, let us all “stay-in” maximum possible.  

Meanwhile, we all need to check that our neighbours do not need us to do their shopping for supplies for them – if they are in self-isolation. Others all stay home – or stay outdoors when there are few people out.  We can all really restrict our freedom of movement until 13 December in the interests of the common good. Then we can see if our behavior has worked. 

Lindsey Collen

for LALIT 18 November, 2021